Scarface and the Angel
Longacre Press, $14.95,
Mallinson Rendel, $14.95,
Mallinson Rendel, $14.95,
Here’s a batch of four slender, not to say skinny, volumes for adolescents by four local writers: two experienced and well known, one more famous than that, and one a newcomer. Viewed as a group, two themes stand out: the nastiness and unreliability of the fictional stepfather (three out of four) and the incidence of sexual abuse (three out of four again, but not the same three).
My teenage daughter says that our YA writers are obviously by now all mere simulacra of their former selves, having been replaced by pod-people from outer space, who have been programmed to write only about sexual abuse. I was more struck by their slimness. Publishers currently seem to think of the adolescent reader as somebody with an awfully short attention span. But we know that young adults can and still do read meandering Victorian novels of Dickensian or Dostoevskyan dimensions, and we know how hefty a modern “fantasy” can be, too. No doubt teenagers are solipsists and often live in narrow worlds, but surely their reading matter does not have to come in such concentrated form.
William Taylor’s Scarface and the Angel plays a game with fiction, and I am not sure that either the author or the reader comes out the winner. The spare narrative, concentrating attention almost exclusively on the main character, Damon, begins with the establishment of a relationship which will produce a strong sense of déjà vu in Mahy readers. A friendship develops between a lonely, violent and unhappy young man who has undealt with trauma in his past and an elderly woman who roams the city and apparently lives in poverty, neglect and isolation.
Unlike Mahy’s Memory, though, Taylor’s narrative develops as near-fable. It is remarkably destitute of characters and objects, and Taylor’s lack of interest in bedding the narrative down in the thickness of “reality” is accompanied by intensive symbolic cultivation of what little is described. For instance, one side of Damon’s face is badly scarred by broken glass – as a child, he was beaten up when trying to protect his mother from an attack by his “stepfather”. The two sides to Damon’s face become signifiers of the two sides to Damon (whose name is also heavily weighted with significance, by the way). Representing the different directions in which he might choose to develop, they argue as Good Face and Bad Face in his interior world. When Damon’s new and old friend Esther, a gypsy whose mysterious history is never more than sketched in, finally plays a redemptive – or angel’s – role, it leaves the reader gasping and grasping at what might or not be “true” or “real” in the denouement.
To me at least, the transitions between Damon’s brief, broken, obscene spoken/thought words and his fluent, orderly inner voice as narrated (“What was it, Damon wondered, that made him seek out the company of this odd and derelict old woman?”) create a series of awkward gear changes in the text. On the other hand, as one would expect of a writer of Taylor’s calibre, the story has the power to involve readers and intrigue them into thought, and that includes thought on the level of “What is this thing called fiction all about, and how do we co-operate in its working on us like this?” And these, after all, are questions worth pondering.
David Hill is the other experienced writer. After some doubt about his chosen topic in Afterwards – spiritual communication with the recently dead – I came round to finding this another pleasantly thought-provoking book.
It begins, of course, when somebody dies, and in view of the importance of the absent parent motif in fiction for young people, we’ll be unsurprised to find that it’s a rather hopeless dad who has kicked the bucket. Our hero-narrator’s mother, much upset and full of self-blame, falls into the hands of a manipulative medium who is dishonest and blatantly on the take, but Logan has trouble convincing his mother of this and finds he’s only making things worse when he tries. Those readers who, like me, expected Hill to develop out of this scenario a critique of foolish superstition and a wise and rational approach to coming to terms with death are, like me, going to be surprised. There’s another spiritualist on the scene, and whether higher powers, absent friends, and other realms are or are not involved in the final cure of Logan’s mum is left debatable, a good place to leave it. Most of the nicest characters in this book are open-minded on the question of communication with the dead, but Hill has given readers the wherewithal to make up their own minds.
As in Kick Back, with its careful construction of the world of tae kwan do, there’s a good feel of careful research and accurate description behind this book, and, as in Kick Back, there’s also a satisfying sub-story, where adults and parents are finding out things about sex and sexual relationships simultaneously with the youthful main characters. Of course, the death of a father cannot easily be dealt with in a book of this limited scope and direction.
Twenty-Four Hours is thicker but still a slender volume: 200 rather than 100-odd pages. However, Margaret Mahy’s decision to write by two out of three of the Aristotelian unities gives shape and purpose to brevity.
Ellis, our hero, is a nice middle-class kid, who has just escaped boarding school (he liked it, and was in the first fifteen) and has not yet gone to university. Through a chance meeting with an old primary school mate, the skateboarder Jackie, he is shot into a party he was never invited to and thence through a rapid sequence of uncontrollable events in the motley company of less-than-respectable inner-city dwellers. Both Ellis and – almost as importantly in his and our eyes – his mother’s car take some knocks along the way (Ellis acquires a shaven head and a tat) but he manages to keep afloat and even swim in this new stream.
The book has been universally approved, and it’s easy to see why: it’s engrossing, it’s wise, it’s strange, it’s funny and it’s optimistic about meeting challenges and overcoming the damage inflicted by hurts in the past. There is a truly horrific sequence of events in the background of the new “family” Ellis meets, though: events so extraordinary and traumatic a 500-page volume could hardly have dealt with them adequately. To tuck these horrors neatly into a pre-story was short-changing them, I thought. But Mahy is no pod-person. She’s concerned, unusually, with the later life of the abuser rather than the victim, and is not afraid to use the word “love” in this context, either. In fact, Mahy’s plot takes her to the edge of various kinds of various high buildings with an impressive display of balance. I was pleased, incidentally, to see the well-being of Ellis’s mother’s car being taken seriously and the essential phone-call home being made. We mothers notice that kind of thing.
Frances Cherry’s Leon is the odd one out of the four. It has a female rather than male protagonist and it features sexual abuse right in the foreground (rather than on the peripheries) of its narrative. This is not the first local book to deal with the topic, about which there is widespread concern, and the aims are obviously worthy. Such a book can be beneficial for young readers and care-giving adults who may either need educating about the issue or who may find it easier to talk about when they have a book to discuss. Others, unfortunately, may benefit from the comforting sense that they are not alone in undergoing this horrible experience.
Having said all that, I am not entirely happy about the effect of Leon, which is produced by writing a first-person narrative in the present tense. The peculiar effect of the reader’s immersion in a happening-to-me-now unfinished story that results from this narrative stance is very comparable in my mind to the effect of the letter-writing convention in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, also a narrative of sexual pursuit. Pamela’s day-by-day (at times, almost minute-by-minute) accounts of attempted seduction and rape create a prurient excitement in the reader, although Richardson, one assumes, did not really want it to undermine the
effect of his moral tale.
Frances Cherry’s narrator and heroine Clarissa also tells of an elaborate pursuit. Leon, her widowed mother’s new boyfriend, starts meeting her after school, takes her in his car for outings and meals, and loads her with flowers and other more extravagant presents, even giving her a new puppy. Clarissa (she has the name of another of Richardson’s hard-pressed heroines) tries to tell her mother when things get overt and threatening, but Leon is vigilant, quick to protect himself with plausible lies. And by holding over Clarissa the fear that something will happen to her new puppy if she tells, he manages to keep her in a wretched state of anxiety and terror for some time. On the one hand, this makes for an exciting narrative, as Clarissa flees and thwarts Leon and searches for people and occasions on which she might be able to get help without endangering her beloved dog. On the other hand, there’s something unpleasant about collaborating (as the reader must) with all this excitement. And Cherry’s putting the abuse out there, as it were, into an exteriorised scenario, tends to detract from the parts of the book which are about Clarissa’s confused thoughts and feelings.
With guilt, fear, shame, self-loathing and other negative feelings already making communication almost impossible, abused girls find it hard to confide even when the mother is as open to hearing the truth as Clarissa’s. In short, abused children simply cannot always keep themselves safe. Perhaps this is really too big a topic for a skinny book. Or perhaps Cherry’s decision to confine the narrative (for the most part, quite successfully) to what a child might think and say left her too little opportunity to deal with complexities, the inner barriers to communication. Books that deal with single issues are useful and welcome, but space and time are also needed to build some sorts of fictional worlds.
Rose Lovell-Smith teaches a first-year children’s literature course in the Department of English at the University of Auckland.